Posts Tagged 'communism'

Communist structures risk fate of Ozymandias

By Harry van Versendaal

“Searching for information on something that happened in Bulgaria 30 years ago is much like being an archaeologist collecting evidence on an event that occurred many centuries ago.”

Sofia-born artist Nikola Mihov has been documenting the fate of communist-era public monuments scattered around his homeland for the last few years, amassing a growing body of images and text.

Political controversy surrounding Bulgaria’s communist years, as well as pure negligence, have ensured this is not a straightforward task.

“Many of the archives were destroyed on purpose because they were related to communism. Others were lost because the people behind them were simply not around anymore,” Mihov says.

A select few of these images can presently be seen at the Museum of Photography in Thessaloniki, part of an exhibition labeled “Recorded Memories: Europe. Southeast.”

Mihov, who currently splits his time between Sofia and Paris, was 7 years old when communism, under strongman Todor Zhivkov, came to an end. He experienced the early transitional years as a schoolboy before his mother’s job as a diplomat took the family to France. After spending five years in Western Europe, Mihov found he had to move back in 2006. His French was not good enough to gain him a place in the French university system, something which would also have bagged him a visa. “After I came back, I had this feeling of a huge gap. So I began researching,” he says.

Filling the gap

Influenced by the communist-style imagery of his childhood years, Mihov went on to capture black-and-white, mainly frontal views of these monuments. The pictures of the abandoned, derelict and vandalized anti-utopia structures resonate with the ostentatious statements of socialist realism; the grandeur of the concrete masses and statues is still there, but Mihov manages to show how they have sunken into reality.

Interest in them first came from outside Bulgaria. In the fall of 2009, a French magazine did a story on the photos and, a few months later, Mihov was selected for London’s Photomonth festival. “Bulgarians are like that. Once your name is heard abroad, then there is suddenly interest at home,” he says.

Another exhibition followed in Sofia. Mihov began to meet more and more people who were related to these monuments in one way or another. “I spent five years studying archives, meeting with architects, sculptors and construction workers who were still alive. One person would lead me to the next,” he says.

Inevitably, he also visited the House of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Located on Buzludzha, a peak in the Central Balkan Mountains, it is Bulgaria’s biggest monument and looks like a concrete Starship Enterprise. The memorial, which took seven years to build, opened in 1981. No longer maintained, it has fallen prey to vandals and time. A huge piece of graffiti painted above the main entrance reads “Forget your past.” “It was the perfect name for the project,” Mihov says.

“I do not believe that we should forget the past, and that is why I did this project,” he says. “However, I feel awkward when journalists ask me if I feel nostalgia. You cannot feel nostalgic about something you did not really experience. The new generation is not nostalgic. The problem is that there is not enough information.”

Recorded memories

The exhibition “Recorded Memories: Europe. Southeast” features works by 22 artists from 11 countries. The works, which include photographs and video footage, explore different aspects of collective memory in the region, such as landmarks, places and cultures of memory as well as the role of the image in each process.

The show, a collaboration between the Goethe Institute and the Museum of Photography in Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, has been curated by Constanze Wicke. It will remain in Thessaloniki through May 18.

Bulgaria’s communist regime came to an end in 1989. Elections held in the summer of the following year were won by the Bulgarian Socialist Party – basically the rebranded communists. Bulgaria, a close ally of Moscow in communist times, is now a member of NATO and the European Union. A recent Eurostat survey found Bulgaria is by far the most unhappy country in the bloc.

“There is all this opposition between the people who love the country’s [communist] past and those who hate it. But there are also those who just don’t know enough about it. I am part of that group, and I am trying to delve deeper and deeper,” Mihov says.

“It is not safe to generalize about the whole period – a long 45 years – and, similarly, it is not safe to generalize about the monuments. Some are ugly, some are impressive, some are unbelievable. But they are all here, and they are part of our history.”

Museum of Photography, 1st Floor, Warehouse A, Dock A, Thessaloniki Port; Army Warehouses, Dock A, Thessaloniki Port. Opening hours are Tuesdays-Sundays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, log on to http://www.thmphoto.gr.

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Mazower warns Greece is underestimating threat of Golden Dawn

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By Harry van Versendaal

Greeks must not underestimate the threat of Golden Dawn if they accept it as a legitimate, mainstream political movement British historian Mark Mazower said Tuesday.

Speaking during a lecture on Greece’s political extremes at Deree – The American College of Greece, Mazower did not hesitate to draw parallels between the Greek far right party and the nationalist socialist (Nazi) party of the 1930s.

“There is commonality of approach,” he said of the two parties stressing their emphasis on biological racism and violent street tactics that sets them apart from other European nationalist movements like Le Pen’s National Front party.

Golden Dawn officials vehemently deny any Nazi affiliation saying they are Greek nationalists and that they have nothing to do with Hitler or Mussolini.

“Any right-wing party worth its salt is keen to stress its nationalist credentials,” said 55-year-old Mazower, an expert on Greece and the Balkans who teaches history at Columbia University.

Greece’s brutal financial crisis has catapulted Golden Dawn, for years at the fringes of domestic politics, into the spotlight. A recent opinion poll put the party’s support at 11.5 percent, compared to the 7 percent that it garnered in June’s election. This puts the party, which currently holds 18 seats in the 300-member House, in third place behind conservative coalition leader New Democracy and leftist opposition SYRIZA.

Reports of deadly attacks against immigrants by alleged supporters of Golden Dawn and its open endorsement of the country’s 1967-1974 military dictatorship have not dented its appeal among voters in a country where national self-understanding has to a significant degree been shaped by the fight against the Nazis and opposition to the junta.

Mazower, who has written a number of books on 20th century Greek and European history, said Greece’s political class has failed to assume culpability or accept even a symbolic share of the burden that the population has had to shoulder as a result of the painful bailout agreements. Nevertheless, he said, Greeks must not turn their back on the democratic legacy of the post-1974 era.

“People need to defend the achievement of the metapolitefsi,” he said of what is widely regarded as the longest period of democratic stability in the country’s modern history.

However, he said, they should try to remedy the system’s failings starting with “the credibility of the political class.”

Mazower was critical of the Greek left “that never made a mental break from the image of revolution.” But in a nod to the ongoing debate among pundits and historians in Greece concerning public toleration of leftist radicalism, the London-born academic drew the line at of equating far right and far left violence.

“Some say all forms of lawlessness are equally dangerous. I disagree,” said Mazower adding that left-wing protests and law-breaking behavior have not put Greek democracy in jeopardy.

He said historical attempts to underline the “fundamental kinship” between fascism and communism – bringing them both under the label of “totalitatarianism” – are flawed.

“The totalitarianism thesis has been abandoned for very good reason,” he said criticizing recent attempts by conservative politicians in Greece to revive the debate in a bid to score political points against SYRIZA.

Instead of going after anarchist-run squats in Athens which are of little political importance, New Democracy should rather direct its energy and attention at the bigger threat that is Golden Dawn, Mazower said referring to recent police raids on several abandoned buildings in Athens.

“Unfortunately the Greek state does not seem to realize the urgency of the situation,” he said.

Skin trade exposed

Harry van Versendaal

Shortly after communism came crashing to the ground in Eastern Europe, Mimi Chakarova, then 13 years old, left her small Bulgarian village to start a new life in the United States with her mother.

As she found out during a visit back to the place a few years later, other girls from her village had been less fortunate. Lured by promises of well-paying jobs abroad, many disappeared into the dark world of sex slavery as they were actually sold to gangs who confiscated their passports and held them captive in brothels and nightclubs, forcing them to work as prostitutes.

A teacher of visual storytelling at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, Chakarova’s curiosity surrounding the circumstances of the girls’ emigration prompted her to embark on a photo-reportage project in 2003. The venture culminated in a well-crafted and deeply disturbing 73-minute documentary feature which combines still images with video footage.

In her award-winning film, “The Price of Sex,” showing at this month’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, Chakarova follows in the footsteps of Eastern European women forced into sex trafficking and abused by their captors. Along the way, she conducts interviews in Bulgaria, Moldova, Greece, Turkey and Dubai.

Chakarova interviews recruiters, pimps, police officials and a couple of sex-starved clients. She does not hesitate to pose as a prostitute, using hidden cameras to film inside a Turkish sex club — a feat that is unfortunately not as cinematically revealing as it is bold. And she has no qualms about occasionally drifting away from unemotional objectivity, cherished among doc traditionalists, to step into more activist territory.

One of the women describes how she jumped out of a three-story-high window to escape her captors. The attempt left her partially paralyzed but she was still brought back to continue working until a replacement was found. As Charakova puts it in the film, “one kilo of cocaine, one AK-47 or one Moldovan girl — it’s all the same.”

An estimated 2 million women and children are sold into the sex trade every year, according to the United Nations. A large number come from the countries of the former communist bloc.

“If you want to fight sex trafficking, you first have to combat the discrepancy between rich and poor countries, rampant corruption and poor access to justice,” a NGO worker tells Chakarova. Too tall an order for a documentary maker, perhaps, but if knowledge is power, then this doc can provide some of the necessary spark to get things moving in the right direction.

The 35-year-old Chakarova spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about her experience and hopes for the future.

What made you decide to make this particular documentary?

What motivated me to make “The Price of Sex” changed over time. Initially, I wanted to see if what I was reading and seeing in the press was fairly reported. The sensationalism surrounding this issue really troubled me. So I challenged myself to see if I could do a better job of understanding why women were sold into sexual slavery after the collapse of communism. Over the years, no matter how difficult this journey got, I felt a sense of obligation to carry on. I grew up in a village in Bulgaria. I migrated abroad as well, and my family struggled with some of the same challenges of poverty that others faced. I knew I had to return and expose something that many chose to ignore or were too afraid to acknowledge as a post-communist plague in our society.

What were the main obstacles you had to overcome in making the film? Do you still run into trouble because of it?

I often think about some of the situations I put myself in and I realize it was absolutely insane. I didn’t have security. I was shooting with hidden cameras in environments where you are constantly watched and you can’t show fear. This type of work gets to you over time. Even when you come home and it’s “safe,” you can’t turn it off. But at the same time, it’s impossible not to find yourself in dangerous situations, no matter how prepared you think you are. You’re dealing with criminal networks that don’t want their operations exposed. There are too many variables beyond your control when you enter high-risk situations. I always tell my students that staying alive in this line of work is a combination of common sense based on experience, instinct, your powers of observation and the rest is really luck. Once it runs out, you’re done.

It must have been difficult to win the trust of these women. How did you go about it?

I gained their trust over time. I photographed one of the women in “The Price of Sex” over a four-year period before she agreed to a video interview. Every story has its own life and requires patience and care. And in every place you document, you leave a piece of yourself. It’s an exchange. You are not only reporting, taking a photo or shooting video; you are giving your attention and concern. Sometimes you don’t even do the work. You sit and observe and help, if you can. When someone opens their home to you, shares the little bit of food they have and offers you their bed because sleeping on the floor is out of the question, you are a guest, not a journalist. And you treat people with the respect your mother taught you. I am fortunate to say I have a wonderful mother who instilled that in me. And I can return to the places I’ve visited over the years without ever feeling unwelcome. The people we make films about should never be referred to as “subjects.” And the dynamic is way too complicated to ever pretend that we can be objective with the work we do.

Do you feel you kept the necessary distance from the women while shooting the film? Or did you perhaps find yourself getting more engaged than you should have?

I don’t think it’s possible to keep a distance when working on a subject matter like sex slavery for almost a decade. This work affects you profoundly.

Did you help any of the victims in any way, and is that necessarily a bad thing?

Yes, I’ve been able to help some of the women through the work I’ve produced, but my bigger challenge is how to ensure long-term change and, most importantly, how to prevent this from happening to other young girls. One positive outcome is that the US State Department will use the film to train its employees at embassies throughout the world. But there is still a lot more to be done.

Did opening up to you have a cathartic effect on the women?

There were many times when I would ask, “Why are you telling me all this?” — especially when a woman would disclose really graphic or gruesome details of what she went through. And the answer was consistently: “Because you won’t judge me. I have no one else to tell.” So, yes, I think many of these conversations were painful but also cathartic.

You only mention a few numbers in your documentary. Is it because you feel the personal stories you present are more powerful than figures?

The numbers vary so greatly depending on the source that I was wary of focusing on estimates. For example, the US State Department estimates the number of trafficking victims at 800,000 per year. But the UN’s estimate goes up to nearly 2 million. These numbers also include labor trafficking, so rather than focus on data which is very difficult to substantiate, I decided to make a film that tells the women’s stories and also reveals the widespread, systematic corruption across borders.

What do you hope to achieve with this documentary?

I hope that people who see it can leave informed but also with the urgent desire to do something. If you’re not informed, you are living in darkness. The more you know, the more responsible you become about changing. And once you know what happens to others, it is your duty as a human being to take a position. Pretending that what’s right in front of you doesn’t exist just because it disrupts your comfort zone is unacceptable. I would like to encourage people to visit http://priceofsex.org and learn more about the film and the multimedia series. I would also urge them to react and post their comments. It’s through this global discourse and sharing of ideas and experiences that we truly bring such issues to the surface. And that’s always an important first step before taking action.

Are you working on a new project?

I am currently traveling with the film and speaking about “The Price of Sex” to as many people as I can. Once I feel that the film has a life of its own and no longer requires my presence, I will start working on my second film, which takes place in the US.


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